Month: January 1998

The Gaea Trilogy, John Varley

Berkley, 1979-1984, ???? pages, C$??.?? mmpb, ISBN Various

Titan: Berkley, 1979, 309 pages, C$2.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-04998-1
Wizard: Berkley, 1980, 372 pages, C$2.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-04828-4
Demon: Berkley, 1984, 464 pages, C$3.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-08271-7

In early 1994, I took a chance by buying a hardcover edition of John Varley’s Steel Beach, none too sure that I’d enjoy a 500-pages book by an unfamiliar author. It was one of the first SF novel I bought, and also still one of my favorite. (The killer opening line is: “’In five years, the penis will be obsolete’, said the saleman.”)

Afterward, I read most John Varley’s stories and his other novels (Millenium, The Ophiuchi Hotline), enjoying most of it and wincing at the film adaptation of Millenium. Varley is often brilliant, even oftener shocking (deliberately so) and also pretty fascinating. He took on issues like biotechnology and gender roles, starring most often than not females as strong protagonists.

I bought used copies of Titan and Wizard a while back, but never got around to read them before I finally thought of buying the third volume of the trilogy, Demon. Then I sat back comfortably, and read.

The most shocking thing about the Gaean trilogy is that despite being desperate to shock the reader, it ends up being a very long, somewhat boring and utterly ordinary trilogy. Varley packed more ideas in the slim 200 pages of The Ophiuchi Hotline than his thousand-pages trilogy. Granted, the characters are more fully developed… but was it really worth it?

Probably not.

The trilogy opens on an exploratory voyage to a newly-discovered moon of Saturn. A quick sketch of the characters later, the NASA spaceship Ringmaster is trashed, and our characters are stranded on (or is it inside?) an alien world. Titan is perhaps the most interesting volume of the three, since it has the advantage of being the first glimpse at Gaea. A novel of exploration and discovery, it has a more-or-less satisfying payoff. Unfortunately, Varley throws in more than is necessary, and most of his attempts at shock value smack more of over-indulgence than actually useful plot development. Like most adventure stories, it’s also by times a travelogue of less than gripping interest.

Wizard logically continues the adventures of Cirroco Jones, the protagonist of the Gaean trilogy. A few new characters are introduced, and go through yet more seemingly interminable adventures. More shocking things are introduced and they still don’t feel really unsettling. Again, the conclusion is pretty satisfying, especially if you like the “one-mortal-against-the-gods” kind of story.

While Demon acceptably conclude Cirroco Jones’ personal evolution, this third tome nevertheless feels disjointed compared to the rest of the series. Perhaps this is a result of the four-year-break between Wizard and Demon, or maybe the sudden emphasis on movies in-jokes that permeates this final book. Even then, the book feels overlong despite the nice character development, and the conclusion feels empty more than would be the norm for the conclusion of a trilogy.

Even confirmed Varley fans might want to think twice before attempting the Gaean trilogy. It’s not that it’s a particularly horrendous work; technically, it’s pretty good despite its length (somewhat compensated by the character development and the easily-readable prose). However, in a world where there are so many good books and so little time, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that better books should be read before the Gaean trilogy.

King of Infinite Space, Allen Steele

Harper Collins, 1997, 312 pages, C$32.50 hc, ISBN 0-06-105286-8

Admit it: You just want to be immortal.

No, don’t try this surprised air with me. Nor some half-hearted excuse about how infinite longevity would be infinitely boring. You just want to be able to laugh at evolution, at interest rates and at seasonal fashions. You want to escape the blink that is the human life-span, the ridiculous amount of time that we waste a full third of by sleeping more or less soundly.

So, what are you going to do about it? Wait until nanotech cooks up a few nanodocs? But what if that takes too much time? Or if you’re pretty sure not to last until then?

Well, there’s always cryogenics. Pay a fortune in cold hard cash! Stay cool for centuries! Become a corpscicle and amaze all your friends! Be the first one on your block to have a one-way ticket to the future!

That’s more or less what happens to William Alec Tucker III, the young protagonist of Allen Steele’s A King of Infinite Space. After the particularly memorable 1995 St-Louis edition of Lollapalooza, Alec dies in a car crash only to wake up two centuries later as a brain-damaged idiot, courtesy of rich guilt-ridden parents…

He soon recovers his mental faculties, and discovers that he’s now a slave of a powerful, shady character along with a few dozen other “deadheads.” Of course, he’ll try to escape…

A King of Infinite Space is a novel of almost-Heinleinian verve, of lovely narration, of strongly-plotted narrative, of imaginative detail and of some fast-paced action.

Unfortunately, it’s also a cheat.

Part of the problem resides in the protagonist. As a drug-using, spoiled, selfish, unfocused young man who’s more an overgrown teenager than anything else, Alec might be a terrific storyteller, but he’s also a terribly unsympathetic character. Of course, this being a coming-of-age novel, he’ll have to grow up. His path toward maturity is fraught with the usual escapes, fights and hard lessons. And then-

Then there’s the structure of the novel, which doesn’t involve the reader until Alec can finally act against something and make a hero out of himself. Then the novel becomes gripping, and despite a few misgivings about the remainder of the book, this is clearly the work of someone who knows his stuff: Allen Steele has almost won over a new fan here. The tension rises and rises as Alec fights against superior opponents and teach a few things to a few traitors. And then-

Then Steele pulls the rugs from under our feet and we’re as helpless as poor Alec as he’s told that his dazzling deeds of derring-do were carefully allowed, encouraged or predicted. His victory is as hollow as the asteroid he started on, and the extent of the manipulations exerted on him are as stunning as they are disappointing. He is -as we are- completely dismissed. In other words, ha-ha, it was almost a dream.

That’s a cheat. That’s a cop-out. That was unfortunately also the only way to conclude the novel… but it’s still cheap.

So, if being corpsicled is still too expensive an option to visit the future, grab A King of Infinite Space at the nearest library. It’s a good read, it’s even quite pulse-pounding by moments, but don’t get too excited: It’s all a dream. Or almost so.

Point of Impact, John Nichol

Hodder & Stoughton, 1996, 310 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-340-67181-5

The relationship between authors and their novels is often surprising. After all, it’s their job to feel, to imagine and to describe what the ordinary readership hasn’t got a chance to live. Despite this, most thriller writers have never been chased across countries by international conspiracies. Most Science-Fiction authors have never gone into space. Romance writers are usually comfortably married, and it’s a fair bet to state that their romantic experiences were far less extreme than those of their protagonists.

Military thrillers (to isolate a particularly interesting segment of the publishing spectrum) often buck this trend by being written by active, or retired military personnel. (Even then, it’s quite an irony to see that the best known of them, Tom Clancy, has never been in the military.) The list is impressive (Dale Brown, Harold Coyle, Ralph Peters, Joe Weber, even the late General Sir John Hackett) and now include ex-RAF pilot John Nichol.

Fact is, you may have already seen Nichol on TV: During the Gulf War, we was shot down over Iraq and held forty-nine days as a POW. But his career neither began nor ended there: He flew over Bosnia, the South Atlantic and other bases around the world during his fifteen-year career. In short, he knows what he’s talking about when dealing with military planes. After two co-written nonfiction books (Tornado Down and Team Tornado, with John Peters), Nichol flies solo with his debut novel, Point of Impact.

This novel opens with an airplane crash, a scene we’ll see often during the following three hundred pages. The niggling problem of unreliable machines thus being introduced, we encounter our hero (all-around good guy Drew Miller), his sidekick and his love interest, in addition to the usual crowd of interlinking supporting characters. (Would you believe that the love interest’s father is the Vice Air Marshall? Shocking!)

Before anyone can catch their breath, the protagonist crashes a few time, sleeps with the love interest and gets to kill a few people. While savvy readers of genre have already seen all of this before, it’s always a relief to see the ingredients being mixed in such a competent manner. As could be expected, the technical details seem plausible enough, and the atmosphere of the flying brotherhood of pilots is sharply drawn.

This isn’t an overly ambitious work, and it works pretty well most of the time. The romance angle is inconsistently convincing, and the novel does take a while to get going (not to mention that the solution of the “mystery” is fairly evident to readers well-read in computer sciences…) but the ensemble is a pretty enjoyable read up to the end, where…

[Strong, but vague and ominous, spoilers in next paragraph]

Point of Impact takes a depressing tragic turn. Just as all the chips have been turned, just as the hero is proven right, the heavy hand of Fate Itself slaps down Drew Miller and the reader at the same time. Nichol won’t be accused of a gratuitous happy-ending. It can be argued that it was the only way to wrap up the novel decently, but even then, this conclusion is unsatisfying, with unnecessary suspense about the identity of a survivor (Note to authors: Do it only if you have to.) and a suddenly passive love interest. Then again, an unhappy ending is just the kind of thing that give (unwarranted) credibility to an author. But after the meanly efficient Bosnia passage, it’s not as if Nichol could be accused of being an “easy” author.

This caveat aside, Point of Impact is a slightly superior military thriller. The British perspective is different enough to interest even the slightly-jaded American genre fan, and the novel makes great summer reading once it takes off.

The Truth About Uri Geller, James Randi

Prometheus, 1982, 234 pages, C$26.50 tpb, ISBN 0-87975-199-1

Do you honestly believe that aliens have secret agreements with our government? Do you trust the claims of clairvoyants, prophets, astrologers or new-age devotees? Do you think telepathy is a proven, significant phenomenon? Do you consider The X-Files as Holy Gospel, not to mention the Holy Gospel as literal truth?

If so, you’re not reading the good reviewer.

Faithful readers (if there are any), will remember my skepticism -if not outright disgust- toward alleged manifestations of the paranormal and other wacky money-making enterprises on the edge of so-called science and credulity. Unfortunately, such a viewpoint isn’t popular (ie: does not cater to fantasies) and so “psychic healers”, “alien abductees” and “government conspiracies” continue to exist, and sell, and sell, and sell…

It’s somewhat reassuring to find that still a few rational people exist in the world, and that the fine folks at Prometheus Press are publishing their books. The Truth About Uri Geller is one of the most lucid non-fiction book I’ve read in a while.

As a faithful reader of the Skeptical Enquirer, I’m quite familiar with the names of James Randi and Uri Geller. The general public might not remember the names (hurrah!) but let me do a brief historical recap:

In the early seventies, America discovered a young, handsome psychic named Uri Geller. Geller allegedly had the ability to read minds, to bend keys and spoons, to read through envelopes and to repair stopped watches. His powers were examined by one of the USA’s biggest scientific institute. He appeared on the Johnny Carson and the Merv Griffin show. His own “psychic” shows attracted thousands. He was repeatedly used as “proof” that psychic powers existed.

Yeah, riiight.

Time can do many amazing things, even more amazing that the elaborate parlor tricks of a magician-turned-psychic-phenomenon. Today, the name Uri Geller draws a blank among the general populace. Even if a quick Internet search revealed that Geller is still in the psychic business, he has lost considerable fame since his early seventies heydays.

Even if it would be an overstatement to say that The Truth About James Randi has anything to do with it, this devastating exposé might explain why Geller didn’t have any staying power, psychic or otherwise.

James Randi is a magician. He deals with illusions; that’s how he makes a living. But as he makes clear in this book, the only difference between him and Geller is that Randi at least has the moral integrity to admit that he’s not a seer, a psychic or a telepath. Everything he does is at the grasp of any normal person, and he “proves” this over and over again in the book.

I say “prove” because the biggest flaw of the book is that Randi cannot reveal the how of certain illusions, since it would be like revealing trade secrets to competitors. Magic has a strict code of honor, and thus you have to be content with Randi’s claims that he can (and did) duplicate Geller’s feats without any kind of supernatural intervention.

[January 1999:  After seeing the two first “Secrets of Magicians” TV shows -who do reveal how magic tricks work-, I am more inclined than ever before to trust James Randi over Uri Geller.]

But even then, Geller’s account contains enough verifiable claims that it’s impossible to take Geller’s claims seriously afterward. Simple logic, a bit of quick comparisons, and outside sources serve Randi’s purposes wonderfully: Uri Geller simply cannot stand up to scrutiny.

In retrospect, The Truth About Uri Geller‘s greatest contribution is to show how easy it is to fool people who want to be fooled. That’s how Geller did it, mostly, and that’s why we must develop at least a sense of skepticism about these claims. Read it and weep, rage, but above all, get an education.

Wrath of God, Robert Gleason

Harper Prism, 1994, 397 pages, C$20.00 tpb, ISBN 0-06-105311-2

You’ve never read a book like this. It’s a promise.

A post-apocalypse setting. A Mongol horde invading the United States. Stonewall Jackson, George Patton and Amelia Earhart brought back from the dead through time along with a triceratops. A torturer named “The Cuddler”. A bunch of good guys led by a tough grandmother who has an eagle as a pet. And so on…

Stylistically, it’s also a fair bet to say that you’ve never read a book written this way before: The first fifty pages are as slow as molasses, the pacing picks up and drops off at strange intervals, some characters bite it unexpectedly, others survive needlessly.

Then, what is Wrath of God? Religious allegory? Cheap patriotic propaganda? Slightly above-average men’s adventure? Science-Fantasy? Military fiction? Mystical adventure? All of the above? In the end, this novel looks more like a 400-pages indulgence than any kind of coherent story.

Science-Fiction fans probably won’t remember the name Robert Gleason, but should be interested to know that he was Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s editor. (Readers of Niven’s N-Space will remember how an early outline for Footfall became Lucifer’s Hammer when their editor said “Drop the aliens; do the asteroid novel.” Gleason was that editor.)

So it could be natural to assume that Wrath of God would be slam-bang SF with dashes of mainstream narrative structures and a few random wacky post-apocalyptic details. The truth is harder to describe.

There’s no SF here despite the time-travel, which is much more a fantastic/spiritualist device than serious extrapolation… a flaw often repeated: In Wrath of God, it’s difficult to separate the seriously earnest with the ridiculously tongue-in-cheek. A ground-bound eagle named Betsy Ross, symbol of an impotent America? Pleeeaaaassseee…

There are six pages of raving quotes at the beginning of Wrath of God, but a quick glance will reveal that most of these quotes are from authors. And Gleason’s an editor, get it? Wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more!

By times ridiculous and boring or exciting and gripping, Wrath of God is disjointed, and the ultimate irony is that Gleason might have needed a good editor to suggest necessary changes to this novel. Characters could have been tightened, the action could have been more evenly distributed… even the writing could have been improved. (Although not by much: For all its faults, Wrath of God is written with a certain flourish.)

And let’s not get into not-so-subtle errors of logic and credibility, such as why a Mongol horde would take the trouble to invade the United States…

It would be a mistake to assume from the preceding paragraphs that Wrath of God is a worthless book. Truth be told, there’s a certain raucous enjoyment to be gleaned from it, much like shlocko, over-the-top B-Movies can be much “better” than preachy, ponderous Oscar-list motion pictures. It’s still a bit depressing to find here a variety of elements that don’t quite manage to gel together, despite offering a few intriguing possibilities. It ain’t The Stand, despite what the cover blurb promises.

Ultimately, Wrath of God can’t be recommended strongly, although it’s a definite curio for the curious reader. Niven and Pournelle can rest safely, knowing that their jobs remain secure.

"So, What Are the Boys Saying?", Michel Gratton

Paperjack, 1987, 294 pages, C$4.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-7701-0976-4

Living near Ottawa like I am, (and currently working as a part-time civil servant) it’s impossible to be indifferent to the continuous stream of political commentary coming down from Parliament Hill and its assorted observers. Canadian politics might be appreciated only by a select group of Canadians (if not anyone else) but when it rocks, it rocks.

For anyone south of the border not following Great White North Politics, don’t bother to read further.

In 1984, Michel Gratton went from being columnist at the French-Canadian newspaper Le Droit to being a member of Mulroney’s Prime Minister Office as his deputy press secretary. He stayed there until 1987, when he was driven to resignation by a hostile press corps, an indifferent government and unsavory allegations of misconduct.

Gratton’s stint as a member of Mulroney’ staff neatly paralleled the incredible rise, and as incredible (first) fall of one of Canada’s most interesting Prime Minister. “So, What are the boys saying?” is the chronicle of these three years.

And what three years they were! Coming from almost nowhere, Brian Mulroney won the election under John Turner’s nose in the biggest landslide in Canadian Politics history. The fatal blow for the Liberals happened during one of the televised debates, when Mulroney thoroughly slammed Turner on the issue of patronage, calling him a liar on national TV.

The first half of Gratton’s book tells of the election, and introduces the principal players of the book. The tale is told crisply, and this part of the book reads more like a Canadian version of Primary Colors than anything else. (minus the odd sexual scandal involving the candidate, although there’s something about John Turner and backside-patting here… but I digress.) The bit about the fateful televised debate is especially exciting, a real-life event that has its place in political fiction.

But power had a few surprises for the Conservatives. Not only did the Canadian electorate recover with their temporary infatuation with the Conservatives, but the Mulroney government had to deal with a seemingly-unbreakable chain of various scandals. Rotten fish, shady land deals, inflated expense accounts and other misconducts shook the Conservative approval rating until is had sunk to impressive lows.

This section of the book also deals with Mulroney abroad, and visits of foreign dignitaries in Canada. The various stories about the arrogant American press office are almost worth the price of the book itself…

Boys is incredibly engrossing reading. The style is brisk, frequently hilarious, and studded with carefully chosen anecdotes. Gratton’s journalistic instincts makes this an exceptional overview of the Canadian political scene during the mid-eighties.

But Gratton’s own story is less fascinating. An autobiography works better when you can like the person telling it, and that’s not really the case with Gratton: The book turns sour near the end, when he is accused of sexual harassment by a few ex-girlfriends (of which we are told there are many). Not only is Gratton’s character put in question, but his own revelations make him appear more as an unlikable lout than a wrongfully accused man.

Still, it’s worthwhile reading for the select few interested in Canadian politics. Unfortunately, while Gratton’s book nicely wraps up his own involvement with the Mulroney government, it only tells half the tale. Events after 1987 would find Mulroney’s Conservatives re-elected with a majority, only to be nuked out of the political landscape in 1993 after a lackluster five years of government which would see such quiet revolutions as Free Trade, a new Federal tax (the GST) and another string of scandals… The wheel turns!

The Rise of Endymion, Dan Simmons

Bantam Spectra, 1997, 579 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-10652-X

There’s SF and then there’s SF.

The difference between the two, as the saying goes, is unquantifiable yet evident. The difference between the average SF novel and the Hyperion series is similarly hard to isolate, yet there is no doubt that it is there.

The Rise of Endymion is the fourth -and last, we’re told- volume of the enormously popular “Hyperion” series, by Dan Simmons. Since the first two volumes came out in 1989 and 1990, most serious SF fans have since read the two first volumes of the series. The Hyperion Cantos (Simmon’s name for the first two books) delighted jaded and newer readers alike with a complex story that seemingly used almost every Science-Fiction device in existence. The style was marvelous, the ending was apocalyptic and the ensemble was simply awe-inspiring.

Endymion fast-forwarded a few centuries after, and posited an empire built by a Christian Church with the literal power of resurrection. But most of the novel’s 500-odd pages was about an extended chase between the Church and a trio composed of a young girl, a blue android and a wholly average man called Raul Endymion.

At the beginning of the fourth volume, events conspire to bring the young girl, now destined for messiah-status, out of hiding and in direct combat against the Church. More adventures, more revelations, more ends of empires ensue. Characters meet fates that are mostly tragic.

The Rise of Endymion has the merit of not only being a good book in itself, but also of enhancing its prequel. Whereas Endymion seemed to go nowhere slowly, The Rise of Endymion finally delivers the payoffs of all setups. Enigmas held mysterious ever since the first volume (the identity of the Shrike, the role of the cruciforms) are explained, and the seemingly senseless travelogue of book three now makes more sense. (It’s still too long, but that’s a flaw shared by this book too.)

Simmons weaves into his tale a great many thoughts about information ages, religion, sentience, poetry and theo/philosophy. Yet, surprisingly, this space-opera is not harmed by such statements as “love is one of the universe’s major forces” and a ritual of blood-drinking that’s part salvation, part bizarrely Christian. These musings go on for pages at a time; whether or not you’ll find them interesting is up to personal preference. As a heroine, Aenea is a bit of a cypher… but that’s completely intentional.

There are also a few inconsistencies, much of them due to the inherent nature of A> time travel, B> the gift of prophecy or C> antagonists set up as all-powerful but ending up being fought with bare hands.

Old friends of the Hyperion saga make their final (sometime surprising) appearances. The role of Colonel Kassad and Rachel Weintraub, in particular, are quite unexpected, but still logical. No long-standing fan of the series should be disappointed by the pilgrims’ final fates.

Ultimately, though, it’s not the galaxy-spanning tale of corrupt religion and messianic fate that holds The Rise of Endymion together: It’s the love story between Aenea and Raul Endymion. In a genre where romance is so shoddily treated, it’s nice (yes, nice) to find at least one example of solid SF married to solid romance. It does takes a while to begin, and a further while to be believable, but the payoff is one of the most gripping conclusion in recent memory.

The characters are great (all of them), the prose is superb (truly some of the best in the genre) and this novel has the unusual quality of making you feel in addition of making you think. For this, and more, The Rise of Endymion isn’t only good, but great. Read it and weep.

[April 1998: Rise of Endymion is nominated for the 1998 Hugo Awards.] [September 1998:…but doesn’t win.]

What if the Moon didn’t exist?, Neil F. Comins

Harper Collins, 1993, 315 pages, C$26.75 hc, ISBN 0-06-016864-1

“What if” is one of the most important concepts in human thought. It’s the bridge between imagination and knowledge. It is the written expression of curiosity and inquiry. It is the first step toward any new discovery. It should be the motto of Speculative Fiction. It is the reason behind What if the Moon didn’t exist?

But whereas SF writers might postulate, dramatize and dispose of in a few pages without any scientific rationale, Moon‘s author “is a professor of Astronomy and Physics at the University of Maine.” This isn’t just a collection of fancy questions: Comins answers them in more detail than you ever would have wanted to know.

For instance, if the Moon didn’t exist, not only would nights be much darker, but the Earth would not have been slowed down by tidal forces. Consequently, you could expect lower tides, hurricane winds (up to 400kph), high waves, rapid erosion, a stronger magnetic field, a later appearance of life on the planet, shorter days (8-hour days) and a generally harder time for anything approaching intelligence. All explained in meticulous detail.

But Comins isn’t satisfied with only explaining what would have happened if the Moon didn’t exist: He goes on to explore the effects of a closer moon; a less massive Earth; a more massive sun; a nearby supernova; a black hole impact… among others.

In concept, Moon is a good idea. In execution, it manages to be only worthwhile. The biggest flaw is the style, which is fairly readable, but not gripping nor densely fascinating as a few other science non-fiction authors. To put it simply; there’s no compelling reason to keep on reading Moon beside mild intellectual curiosity.

Alas, there are also a few gratuitous extrapolations to marr the book, probably the most glaring being that beings of the high-wind moon-less Earth could very well develop telepathy. Uh-huh.

Then there’s the fact that Moon is at time a relentless propaganda piece for environmentalists. The last chapter, in fact, is about ozone depletion. The remainder of the book is often of the type “See how we’re lucky?” It might have been interesting to see Comins imagine a better Earth than our Earth. Alien freaks and nonpartisans of the anthropomorphic theory will be disappointed while reading this book: The chances of intelligent life existing elsewhere in the galaxy are more remote with every chapter of the book.

Still, it’s an interesting work. While it doesn’t quite attain expectations, it’s still a welcome refresher on the forces that make our planet tick. SF writers should take a look at Moon to learn how to do decent world-building, and curious laypersons should at least browse through the most interesting chapters. What if the Moon didn’t exist? is an average non-fiction book with a clever premise but an ordinary result.

But I Digress, Peter David

Krause, 1993, 256 pages, US$14.95 tpb, ISBN 0-87341-286-9

Peter David describes himself as a “writer of stuff”.

For instance, you might know him as the writer of some of the best Star Trek novels ever written—from the hilarious Q-in-Law to the maudlin Imzadi. Or you might know him as the writer of a few Babylon-5 episodes (“Soul Mates”, “There the Honor Lies”). You might remember his name on a few novelisations (The Rocketeer, Babylon-5: In the Beginning), or a few movies whose scripts he wrote (TRANCERS IV, OBLIVION). You might know him as the writer of several comics, from X-Men to Spider-man. Or, you might even remember him as the writer of one infuriating column in Comic Buyer’s Guide, “But I Digress”.

But I Digress collect almost three year’s worth of columns from the eponymous series. Covering a wide range of subjects -from the obvious comics, to Star Trek, to movies, conventions and more serious social issues, But I Digress is also a self-revealing portrait by one of the most versatile “writer of stuff” today.

Peter David has the gift of writing in a way that will not leave you indifferent. Most of the time, he will make you laugh. That’s David’s trademark and he doesn’t disappoint here. Don’t miss “An Animated Discussion”, a panel reuniting Disney’s favorite heroines: it’s a hoot, much like David’s recommendations to budding comic writers. (“Don’t bother coming up with a mutant team called ‘X-Crement’. Better men than you have already tried it.”) and anecdotes from the convention circuit. The book is full of zippy one-liners that will make you laugh aloud… Hey, better that than a sharp stick in the eye!

But David is also able to bring the reader to serious reflection of serious issues, bringing the same verve to social commentary than to comic discussions. He is someone who cares about stuff in addition of writing about it. His first L.A. travelogue is especially poignant.

Since these are columns published in a comic magazine for comic readers, it’s a fair bet to state that this will appeal more to faithful comic buyers that the general public. Readers unfamiliar with the wonderful world of comic publishing will feel lost in the first pages. Which isn’t to say that it’s completely inaccessible: This reviewer was eventually able to piece up a coherent picture of the comics industry with minimal outside sources.

It’s a testament to David’s writing skills that this book can be read in a flash. More like an assortment of tasty treats than a full-blown meal (to fall back on culinary metaphors again), But I Digress is great entertainment with an unusually high re-readability factor. A fairly complete index will help casual readers find their bearings.

[Byline: Reviewer Christian Sauvé is a Reader of Stuff.]

Wag The Dog (1997)

Wag The Dog (1997)

(In theaters, January 1998) Let’s face it: January’s a rotten month for first-run moviegoing. It’s either shlocko-B-Grade-late-night-TV fare dumped by the studios in the middle of the winter because there’s got to be something on the screens during the month, or else a few Oscar hopeful released late in December in a few major markets for academy consideration, and who get wider release in January. Among them… Wag The Dog. An American president is accused of sexual misconduct with a young female. One crack spin doctor gets on the case and diverts the attention of the public with threats of war. A Hollywood producer is hired. It ain’t real-life, although in Mid-January 1998, we could almost feel ourselves being pulled slowly in a Phil K. Dick novel where current events were being uncannily predicted by Hollywood. Wag The Dog will probably pass into history as being at the right places at exactly the right time, but fortunately the movie remains decent on its own terms. Unfortunately, the script isn’t as good as it could have been. The unlikeliness of the described situation -despite the above paragraph, I stand by the word “unlikeliness”- is such that a deliberately over-the-top treatment (à la, heh-heh-heh, The Producers) would have been vastly more successful. To put it simply, Wag The Dog‘s premise is neat but doesn’t have a lot of relevance. So why try? On the other hand, Dustin Hoffman is quite funny after a while, and Anne Heche does a fine bit of window-dressing. If Robert DeNiro is a bit dull (intentionally), Dennis Leary and William H. Macy are great during their short screen time. I liked it, but it’s far from being one of my favorite films of 1997.

Nano, Ed Regis

Little Brown, 1995, 325 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 0-316-73858-1

If you don’t find the future terrifying, you haven’t been there. Yet.

I just made up this epigram, (write to me if you use it) but maybe it should be the motto of every serious futurist. More and more, the pace of progress is increasing. The old adage about how things change to remain the same simply doesn’t hold true anymore: What we’re seeing in the crystal ball is that we’re on the brink of massive, irreversible and completely alien changes that will forever alter the face of the human race.

I’m overreacting? Barely. Consider Genetic Engineering. In maybe a decade (probably less), we’ll be able to fiddle with genes well enough to correct most of humankind’s worst flaws. Myopia? Diabetes? Arrhythmia? Crooked teeth? Gone, gone, all of them! You’ve heard it from elsewhere; let’s not go in more detail here. Genetic Engineering has the potential to do… well… almost everything.

(Digression: Genengineering might be, evolutionary speaking, the only way for a sufficiently advanced civilization to survive. Reason being that civilization stops natural evolution, and there must be something -short of eugenics- to ensure the betterment of the species, right?)

Even before reading Nano, I thought that nanotechnology might have an even bigger impact. Now I’m sure of it.

Nano is a layman’s account of the new proto-science of nanotechnology. I say proto-science because it’s fairly young, and it’s not a “traditional” science that fits in easily with physics, chemistry or biology. Nanotech is, simply, the study and manipulation of objects at the atomic level. What can you do with it? Everything.

Machines able to rearrange matter atom-by atom could be tailored to build any imaginable object. Repair your body. Kill viruses. Provide food from dirt. Power your car. Completely destroy any object and re-use the raw atoms to make a brand-new (or well-thumbed) copy of Dune. Whatever. Nano explains it in crystal-clear details. Make no mistake, Nano is a book-length pamphlet about nanotech and why you should be prepared for it.

But Nano is also very much the story of Eric Drexler. Drexler, while still an undergraduate, hit upon the theoretical notion of manipulating atoms. The remainder of his life so far has been dedicated at making this concept a reality and Nano describes the obstacles he had to face, from incredulity to lack of academic recognition.

The book advances more or less chronologically, following Drexler’s career and occasionally looking into parallel tracks. We progressively get caught in the excitement of the subject, and by the end of the book, you should be as much a convert to nanotech than Regis wants you to be. A few photos (not enough) illustrate this book.

The two biggest assets of Nano are its mind-blowing subject, and a limpid style. Ed Regis should get kudos for an exceptional job of bringing a heady subject to everyone’s level. I learned stuff, and I had a good time while doing it. I can’t think of higher praise for non-fiction books.

What’s more, Nanotech is important. It’s the wildcard of all of our future, it’s the siren song for most SF, it could be the last technical innovation. When it will happen (and there are few theoretical reasons why it should not), everything will change. Read Nano. Be prepared. Preview the future.